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Transcendent ed. K. M. Szpara

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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
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K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.

It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.

Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.

A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.

One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.

That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.

The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.

Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Provenance by Ann Leckie

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Following her record-breaking debut trilogy, Ann Leckie, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Awards, returns with a thrilling new story of power, theft, privilege and birthright.

A power-driven young woman has just one chance to secure the status she craves and regain priceless lost artefacts prized by her people. She must free their thief from a prison planet from which no one has ever returned.

Ingray and her charge will return to their home world to find their planet in political turmoil, at the heart of an escalating interstellar conflict. Together, they must make a new plan to salvage Ingray’s future, her family, and her world, before they are lost to her for good.
~~~~~
Never has a novel been so accoladed as Ancillary Justice was in the science fiction community. Never has a trilogy received quite so much love and critical acclaim as the Imperial Radch books did. Two years after the release of the last volume in that series, Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie has returned to what I’m calling the Presgerverse with a new novel, Provenance

Provenance is a high-stakes political heist novel, on its face, that morphs through a series of other forms, including whodunnit, to something akin to a spy thriller by the end of the book; Leckie takes a simple plot, throws in a few curveballs (including a good murder, of course), and emerges with a complex and compelling narrative taking in issues of family, of imperialism, of political manipulation, of tradition, and of the very idea of value itself. Which all sounds rather highbrow, but Provenance also never loses sight of itself as a fun book; this is a novel which cracks jokes, and has the reader laughing aloud (a piece of translation software renders swearwords as things like “fiddlesticks”, cutting the tension at a crucial point in the novel). The tension is slowly built up through making clear the rising personal and political stakes involved in the novel, as they tie together in a very deft way; and the climax ties everything up surprisingly neatly and with an excellent emotional catharsis for the characters that Leckie has very much earned.

Much of the strength of Provenance is in those characters; Leckie really brings her varied and broad cast to life. The novel is narrated in third-person, from the perspective of Ingray, a young woman fostered by a prominent family in Hwae; the way fostering works plays a key role in the novel, and is somewhat reminiscent of Roman Imperial adoptions. Ingray is an interesting character, with low self-confidence, who is also something of a young adult novel archetype; indeed, at a couple of points, Leckie hangs a lampshade on her tendency to pluck, in the nick of time, a brilliant plan out of the air after panicking about it. The rest of the cast are rather less easy to peg onto any adapted archetype, especially Garal Ket, a neman who uses the pronoun e; Provenance never really explains its gender system, but gender neutral neopronouns appear on the second page, and are simply an accepted part of society, with various characters, including background figures, representing a range of genders.

The worldbuilding in Provenance is at times its weakest point, for a related reason: Leckie clearly knows this world and this system, but is only presenting relevant information – and at times, that leaves the book feeling a little messy, because what the reader sees as relevant information can go beyond what the author does. This is especially true in trying to understand the social and political system of Hwae; Leckie gives us a lot of pieces of the puzzle, but in the end not enough to really put the whole thing together, especially when it comes to the non-Hwae polities we meet who play pivotal roles in the plot.

Whereas the Imperial Radch trilogy was a triumph of serious space opera, Provenance is much more straightforwardly fun; it may be engaging with huge, important themes, but it never loses sight of the necessity of a sense of humour. Ann Leckie proves, here, that there is far more than one string to her quill.

Disclaimer: Ann Leckie is a friend. This review was based on an ARC of the novel provided, on request, by the author. Provenance will be released on September 26th.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Trans Like Me by CN Lester

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What does it mean to be transgender? How do we discuss the subject? In this eye-opening book, CN Lester, academic and activist, takes us on a journey through some of the most pressing issues concerning the trans debate: from pronouns to Caitlyn Jenner; from feminist and LGBTQ activists, to the rise in referrals for gender variant children – all by way of insightful and moving passages about the author’s own experience. Trans Like Me shows us how to strive for authenticity in a world which often seeks to limit us by way of labels.
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At this ‘trans tipping point’ (thank you, Time), a lot of people still don’t know anything about trans people outside a famous few: Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock. All of them are beautiful, and identify as women. CN Lester doesn’t: like me, they are genderqueer, and want to open up the discussion about trans issues to a more diverse array of genders. Trans Like Me is their book-length attempt to do that.

Trans Like Me is written very much for a cis audience. That is, it’s written with the intention of educating a cis audience about trans issues and trans lives, and the reality, complexity, and diversity of those lives, rather than to a trans audience as a rallying cry or political manifesto. Lester certainly has a political agenda, but it’s one that involves getting cis people to sign up to trans rights; hence, explanations of how dysphoria can feel from the inside, discussions of the reality of discrimination against trans people on an everyday basis, and explanation of the medical and legal obstacles trans people face in getting recognition as ourselves. They lay these things out excellently, while also combining them with calls for change in how the world handles trans people: Trans Like Me suggests how the medical and legal professions can handle trans people better, with concrete ideas for recognition.

Lester’s marshalling of evidence is an interesting combination of scientific data and personal anecdote; much of their argument about gender diversity not being a mental health condition comes from their own personal experiences of having mental health conditions, rather than discussions of psychologists’ research. Trans Like Me does use scientific evidence and historical evidence in other areas though; for instance, Lester makes a very strong argument using historical evidence from a broad swathe of the past to demonstrate that gender diverse people have always existed and been part of (Western) society in varying ways.

One of the key elements of Trans Like Me that distinguishes it from most volumes on trans issues is the way Lester engages with gender diverse people who are not, like themself, binary trans people. Trans Like Me talks about a range of gender expression, from genderfluidity to nonbinary, and how they fit into the discussions of trans issues that we usually see; thus, they open up a space for nonbinary people in the discussion of trans issues and of what needs to be done for a more trans-inclusive society. They are also very clear on the importance of allowing flexibility and change in one’s gender over the course of one’s life; this includes discussion of raising children who are gender diverse, through to late-life transition.

There are weaknesses and gaps in Trans Like Me; Lester unfortunately doesn’t discuss agender people at all, assuming gender is something everyone has, and their discussion of intersexuality (as distinct from the range of trans identities) is both brief and focused largely on undermining the idea of a biological binary of sexes. Lester also at times tends towards the defensive; while necessary when trans people are under attack from a variety of fronts, it would have been nice to see them put forward a stronger argument of itself, rather than strong arguments against trans-exclusionary positions. I would also have liked to see a more clear set of proposals for change: Lester does have some policy ideas, but they don’t really have much of a programme for social reform, or concrete suggestions for action.

Those weaknesses are relatively minor, though; Trans Like Me is an absolutely fantastic book for educating a cis audience about trans issues, as well as opening up the world of nonbinary issues for binary trans people, and I heartily recommend it.

Disclaimer: I am hosting an event with CN Lester and Kaite Welsh at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street on August 17th. Please join us!

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

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Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. While his sister received visions of what would be, Akeha realized what could be. What’s more, he saw the sickness at the heart of his mother’s Protectorate.

A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue to play a pawn in his mother’s twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond he shares with his twin sister?
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On Monday, I reviewed JY Yang’s The Red Threads of Fortune; today, I’m here with the other half of this initial duology in the world of the Tensorate, The Black Tides of Fortune. These reviews are up in this order because that’s the order I chose to read these two apparently standalone novellas.

Unfortunately, that’s not the order these novellas need to be read in. The Black Tides of Heaven ends in the same emotional place that The Red Threads of Fortune begins, approximately; the rebellion by Akeha against his mother, the tragic events of Mokoya’s life coming to their head, et cetera. Yang builds the world brilliantly in this novella, and really gets their ideas across; things referenced in Red Threads of Fortune are put centre-ground in The Black Tides of Heaven in a way that makes them much more explicable, such as Mokoya’s history as a prophet, the relationship between Protectorate, Grand Monastery, Tensorate, and Machinists, and the relationship between Akeha and his sister. That’s not done through infodumping; it’s backgrounded in Red Threads of Fortune because, fundamentally, it is the plot here.

This is very much a coming of age story; told in a series of sections focused on Akeha’s relationships with different characters, including his sister, his mother, and his lover, it’s an interesting lens through which to view Akeha’s journey through life. The Black Tide of Heaven really does do a lot of work on personal rebellion and political rebellion, looking at how they’re linked in the case of the Protector’s child, Akeha, and what that means for his actions. Yang uses other characters to give Akeha more roundness, through his reactions to and interactions with them, but without ever making them solely serve him: they all have lives of their own and motives of their own, which often Akeha is subordinated to.

While The Red Threads of Fortune is about personal feelings, told through a political lens, The Black Tides of Heaven very much reverses that; told through a lens of personal feelings and personal impact, Yang is incredibly engaged with ideas around politics. There is a theme of class struggle running throughout the novella, whether of the Gauri against the dominant (and, in a narrative focusing on them, unnamed) race, of those who can’t manipulate the magical Slack against the dominance of those who can, or religious repression of the Observant, a religion who seem very similar to Islam and are written sensitively and from a place of deep familiarity. The politics aren’t the kind where Yang delivers a monologue using a character as a mouthpiece, but where they’re baked into the world, and acknowledged as political choices.

Finally, one of the most interesting things Yang delves more deeply into in The Black Tides of Heaven is the system of gender in the Protectorate, a subject of obvious relevance to this blog. Children have no gender until they undergo a confirmation ceremony, at which they choose a gender, completely unrelated to physical sex, and are then “confirmed” in that gender by procedures and medication that are roughly analogous to sex reassignment surgery. Yang, and their characters, use the pronoun “they” for children who haven’t been confirmed, and we see the confirmation process through both Mokoya’s eyes (she talks about having always felt like a girl) and Akeha’s, who hasn’t really considered it before; the process is a fascinating one, made all the more so by a later character who it reveals binds his breasts because while being male, he did not feel his body needed to be changed. It’s a brilliant and innovative look at gender and ideas of transness, and Yang, themself a nonbinary person, really must have brought their own feelings on gender into play; I certainly as a nonbinary reader found it incredibly engaging and thoughtful.

I rather wish I’d read The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune in the opposite order to that which I did, since The Black Tides of Heaven is obviously intended as the first of the pair; I’d have gotten a lot more out of them. Given how incredibly excellent they both are, though, and how much I did get out of JY Yang’s paired novellas, I cannot commend them to you highly enough.

Disclaimer: JY Yang is a friend. This review is based on an ARC from the publisher, Tor.com.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

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Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.


On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.
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JY Yang is one of the voices in the genre fiction community I always want to hear more from: intelligent, angry, nonbinary, queer, not white or Western. Imagine my delight when I discovered that I could hear from them in not one, but two novellas this autumn; and imagine my greater delight when Tor.com sent me ARCs of the pair of them… today I’ll review The Red Threads of Fortune, and on Thursday I’ll review the simultaneously released companion volume, The Black Tides of Heaven.

Silkpunk is a relatively meaningless genre descriptor, seeming to apply to everything with an East Asian influence on it; but The Red Threads of Fortune really does seem to solidly fit into the silkpunk designator. Not only is Yang using strongly East Asian influenced cultures as a starting point from which to build their secondary world, but they’re also using the political side of the silkpunk label; The Red Threads of Fortune is heavily engaged in discussions of, and resistance to, systems of various kinds, and is in dialogue with real world racism and assumptions. There’s a theme of resistance to authority, and of the way some authority collaborates in or overlooks resistance to higher authority; there’s a theme of personal relationships having political impacts; and so on, all fascinating and thought through. None of this is heavy-handed; instead, Yang makes them essential to the plot and world, seeding their themes throughout the novella, and rarely taking sides on the issues they raise but making it clear that these are issues to be considered.

That could suggest The Red Threads of Fortune is a very intellectual story, more of a thought piece than anything with emotional resonance. That’s very much not the case. Yang’s plot is built around heartbreak, love, resentment, and emotion; this isn’t a book about politics, really, but about the human heart. Specifically and mainly, the human heart of our protagonist, Sanao Mokoya. Mokoya has suffered the heartbreak of the death of her daughter, in a move that superficially resembles the opening of The Fifth Season, but has a completely different emotional reaction; Yang doesn’t pull punches, and Mokoya’s depression and grief are bluntly portrayed. However, Yang isn’t brutal either, and Mokoya isn’t a caricature of sadness; she is a complex, rounded, interesting character, one whose every interaction is coloured by the loss of her daughter but also by the way her mother raised her, and by her love life, and her emotional ties. Yang gives us a rounded and full emotional character to really connect to, even when she finds it hard to connect to others.

Around Mokoya, Yang arranges a number of other similarly complex characters; her twin, her husband and the father of her daughter, the person she has worked with since running away from her husband in the wake of the tragic death of her daughter, and most interestingly, Rider. Rider is a nonbinary character of a different racial and cultural background to the rest of the characters, and The Red Threads of Fortune relies heavily on emotionally connecting with them as well as with Mokoya; Yang really builds on and uses their relationship, and the way it develops, in a beautiful, powerful, and sweet way, without ever making it untrue. There are bumps and problems between them, and the emotional truth of the negotiation of the relationship is brilliantly moving.

Themes and characters don’t make a plot, necessarily. The Red Threads of Fortune slightly falls down on this front; the core plot is simple, and effective, and self-contained, with brilliant emotional resonances. The monster-hunting transitioning into politicking is brilliant, and the way Yang ties personal grief and responses to that into the plot is fantastic. It’s fast-paced and the romance feels very true. However, the way Yang ties the story into a wider world doesn’t feel complete; the references are obviously intended to be meaningful, but they don’t actually connect with the reader on the terms of The Red Threads of Fortune alone, and that takes some of the force of the story away.

The strengths of The Red Threads of Fortune more than makes up for the weaknesses; this is among the most beautiful and most deeply human books I’ve read in some time, and JY Yang is a truly fantastic talent whom I will follow wherever they lead.

Disclaimer: JY Yang is a friend. This review is based on an ARC from the publisher, Tor.com.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Just Girls by Rachel Gold

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Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. She was an out lesbian in high school, and she figures she can stare down whatever gets thrown her way in college. It can’t be that bad.

Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag College, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.

New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.
~~~~~
There aren’t many trans narratives out there, so when one comes recommended strongly, I’m always going to perk my ears up, as I did for Just Girls when it was recommended by a friend at Eastercon in Birmingham this year…

Just Girls is an odd book for a trans narrative. After all, much of the transphobic abuse we encounter isn’t directed at a trans person, but at a cis person who pretended to be trans to protect a hypothetical trans person they didn’t know; but that doesn’t make its portrayal any less real. Similarly, there are times when Gold straightforwardly reproduces the arguments of TERFs and other transphobes in order to have characters counter them – often ineffectually or without really having another character doing so, as if the rest of the dialogue is missing. As such, this is an odd book, that seems to be reproducing a lot of the abuse it is trying to highlight; this isn’t helped by a strange avoidance of consistent language (trans, transgender and transsexual are all used, in overlapping and often interchangeable ways).

Where Gold engages with sexual and intimate partner violence, she’s much better; it’s explicitly described in retrospect, although not at the time, and controlling behaviours are conveyed very well, and the consequences to the characters are real; Just Girls makes it a secondary core of the novel, although the ways it is tied into the trans narrative is slightly strained.

Of course, there’s more to Just Girls than intimate violence and arguments with Germaine Greer (who Gold namechecks as wrong). The whole book is a slightly overlong, complicated set up for an ending that feels a little too neat for the complexity of the story Gold is telling; she sets up love triangles, squares, and polygons of all kinds, and then knocks them down into simple pairings, in a rather frustrating and reductive way that fails to engage with the possibilities of, for instance, polyamory. On the other hand, some of the elements of the plot are carried off really well – Gold’s description of augmented reality gaming is fun and immersive, and her idea of gamifying social justice activism is an interesting one with true real-world application.

The place where Just Girls really thrives and falls is in its characters. The non-protagonist cast are really well drawn, although there is a strange dichotomy between “good” people who all get trans issues instantly and without question and “bad” people who are vilely transphobic, with nothing in between (and no “bad” people who are bad but not transphobic). The LGBTQIA Alliance members are fantastically portrayed, as are the geeky friends Ella makes; but the standout secondary character for me is Nico, the genderqueer friend Ella made at school who changes hir/per/yos pronouns as and when they become bored of them.

Ella herself, narrator of half of Just Girls, is a slightly annoying character; for someone so interested in science, it seems to barely be an interest of the narrative, just dropped in occasionally for flavour, and her trans narrative and her love triangle is really all there is to her, something the story and the internal monologue keep coming back to in unsubtle ways. Tucker is more interesting; her own mixed emotions are much better portrayed and much more richly human, and the third-person limited frame of her sections allow her to breathe a bit more, Gold’s writing tending to be better in these sections and much more able to create a character from the outside than in.

In the end, Just Girls is a worthy book, but I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile one: it can’t quite decide what it wants to do, except argue for trans acceptance, and it can’t quite decide how it wants to do that.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Problematic Presentation of Gender in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of ciscentricity, allocentricity, intersexism, and gender essentialism, and for quoted anti-trans and anti-intersex slurs apply to the following essay, as well as SPOILER WARNINGS.

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Too Like the Lightning has been feted and critically acclaimed, and now nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I read it back when it first came out, after hearing about how well it supposedly handled queerness, and especially gender in the context of queerness, from a number of people whose opinions on the topic I usually respect; I did not agree with these assessments. I’ve been asked a number of times to discuss more fully my issues with the presentation of gender in the novel, so, with the Hugo Awards now open for voting, it seems like this might be the moment, to let voters see what this particular genderqueer person thought of the presentation of gender in the book. For context, I’m a bisexual nonbinary person and my pronoun is they.

It’s worth establishing some baseline elements. Supposedly, the world of Too Like The Lightning is a post-gender world; “gender, we were supposed to be past that too”1 the narrator says of the world. This is somewhat undermined by the way other characters occasionally make reference to biological sex2, and by the way sex is referred to as being “neutered egalitarian copulation” when done outside of the gender binary3. This is also evident in titles; the frontispiece of the book references “His Majesty Isabel Carlos II of Spain”4, and another character is given the title “Princess”5. We can therefore see that this supposed post-gender world is no such thing, but that gender is apparently not something normally discussed – Mycroft, the narrator, says to the reader that “you must forgive my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, my ‘he’s and ‘she’s”6 on the very first page of actual prose we encounter, as opposed to what appears to be the societal norm of using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.

Mycroft is, then, instantly established as breaking the societal norms by their use of gendered pronouns; indeed, on multiple occasions, Mycroft directly addresses the reader on the matter of using them, and tends to justify it in the most distressingly binarist and allocentric of terms, very early in the text, for instance saying that gendered pronouns “remind you [that is, the putative future reader] of their sexes” and that “gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors [that is, us, the reader] as it is to us”, despite the putative reader Mycroft addresses protesting that their “distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place”7. Indeed, Mycroft states that the singular they is the product a “prudish” era, and a “neutered”7 (in this case, meaning unsexual, desexualised) pronoun. Another character states that “sex is in everything… If you don’t believe that, you need to get laid”8; thus we see binarism and allocentricity as apparently common beliefs.

The text, however, cannot support the weight of Mycroft’s reasoning in the way it uses gender; most egregiously, in the fact that the Mukta, the prototype of a fleet of vehicles that is now planetwide, is gendered as female9, and in the gendering of a hypothetical person used in a simile10. Beyond that, however, children are gendered; rather than referring to Bridger as a child, Mycroft refers to them as a boy11. There’s also the repeated turn of phrase, “a day on which men had honoured their Creator in ages past”12; none of these examples can be seen to be referencing sex, except that of Bridger, and if that’s meant to be sexual, that’s a strange comment on Mycroft and Palmer both.

The exceptional case in which Mycroft as narrator does, however, use ‘they’ is of characters whose gender they are unable to guess; particularly of Utopians, because of their manner of dress13. Mycroft also briefly uses they of Eureka, whose status as a set-set means they’ve never been exposed to the outside world, and whose nerves are all rewired as input modes; but very rapidly, Mycroft in narration switches to using she, for no clear reason14.

The most interesting, and problematic, case of how Mycroft refers to a character in this particular book is the case of Dominic Seneschal, who presents as aggressively male, although is explicitly described as having “breasts beneath that taut waistcoat, that the thighs and pelvis which the coat’s high cut displays are very much a woman’s”15; Mycroft refers to them as “the woman… is the boldest and most masculine of men”16, and uses the pronoun he for them throughout the text. So far, this would seem to simply be Mycroft following the gender preferences of the character; however, Mycroft puts the term “she-man”17 into the mouth of the putative reader about Dominic. If the term is unfamiliar to you, perhaps a close analogue, ‘shemale’, might not be; it is a slur against trans women, which has no place without serious critique of the term going on around it and the user being very explicitly called out for its use18.

The way Mycroft’s gendering works is consistently unclear; the narration suggests that Cousins should always be pronouned with she because of their caring role, “maternal heart[s]” and “flowing robes”19. Carlyle, however, because of genitalia, is referred to as he, something which you’ll note does not constrain the way Mycroft refers to characters such as Dominic; there’s a confusion of whether genitalia or role plays the centre of how Mycroft chooses pronouns, perhaps most pronounced when Mycroft genders Chagatai as female:

With Chagatai, however, your guess [that is, the guess of the putative future reader as to why Mycroft genders Chagatai female] is wrong. It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she’.20

The way that passage assigns gender to Chagatai is based on the stereotypical image of the mother, something that follows for a lot of the way characters gendered as female are portrayed.

This is a consistent problem with the way Mycroft approaches femininity. The first time this appears is in a reference to “practiced femininity”21, something which ought to have no meaning in this supposedly post-gender world. However, this “practiced femininity” is apparently incredibly and inherently sexual, and makes others think of sex, something against which Mycroft states they have no defence. A later discussion of a different character talks about a “display of ‘wife'”22; this is part of a series of pages describing a conversation with Danaë, who is described as acting and appearing in incredibly gendered ways, and builds up to “the husband wrenching the kimono back to bare the honey-wet vagina”23. This section is apparently why Mycroft feels they have to gender all the characters in the narration; because of the way Danaë uses a particular idea of femininity as a weapon.

Now, so far, almost all discussion has been about how Palmer’s choice of narrator has gendered characters, albeit with one exception noted above2. But the problem extends beyond Mycroft. Two chapters are narrated by another character, Martin Guildbreaker, who uses they as the pronoun of choice in them24; however, in discussing the vital statistics of interviewees in their chapters, Martin marks gender in one case (a character Mycroft has not encountered), but not in the other (a character Mycroft has gendered as male)25. A later example is the way two characters gender Carlyle Foster, gendered by Mycroft as male, as female in a discussion, until Carlyle is mentioned as having a penis, at which point both characters switch to using the pronoun ‘they’26; if the point of the pronoun were the transgressive reference to sex and gender, surely it should be consistent or change to he?

Perhaps the strangest example is that of the animated toy soldiers brought to life. They are brought to life with “attitudes of hundreds of years ago when those ancient toy soldiers were made; one of those attitudes Mycroft explicitly mentions in this description is “They use ‘he’ and ‘she'”27. However, in the actual quoted dialogue of the toy soldiers, the only pronoun we ever hear them use is they28; however, they are gendered by other characters, as Thisbe refers to the Major as “he”29, strangely.

The single most problematic portrayal in this book is one that reveals issues with the whole society of Too Like The Lightning, and that spills over and becomes worse in the sequel, Seven Surrenders, revolving around Sniper. In the first book, Sniper is pronouned as he, but Sniper is “tantalisingly androgynous” and “Sniper’s publicity team has worked so hard to keep the public from learning the androgyne’s true sex”30. Indeed, the genital configuration of Sniper is such a mystery to the public that it is something to be discovered by the media31, and a sibling of Sniper’s refers to something being “a public mystery to rival what’s in Cardie’s [that is, Sniper’s] pants”32. Indeed, dolls are made of Sniper for people to play with, including as sex toys; these final category of dolls come as “fully anatomical Sniper-XX and Sniper-XY models”33, suggesting that either Palmer or the world, or both, believe that chromosomes only come in these configurations, and define an exclusively binary set of genitalia, neither assertion of which is true. All this revolves around a character who is, in book two, revealed to be intersex; at this point the narration ceases to use the pronoun he and switches to the pronoun it to refer to Sniper34. If you are unaware, it as a pronoun refers to objects and sometimes animals; but people, adults, are not generally referred to as it, and it is incredibly offensive to almost all intersex people to pronoun them as it, with the exception of those few who reclaim it as their own pronoun, knowing how controversial it is.

All of these choices reflect worldbuilding choices Ada Palmer made, and arguably, they could be justified as being part of the world Palmer chose to build. But there are no constraints on Palmer’s choice of worldbuilding; she could have, instead, built a truly genderless world. She could have built a world where Sniper’s being intersex, Carlyle’s penis and Dominic’s gender identity have no relevance whatsoever; where there truly is not gender or sex differentiation in society, only biologically. Instead she built one which claims to have this while significantly undercutting it; that’s an authorial choice, and one that led to her book punching me in the face35 repeatedly. Insofar as it is related to her choice of narrator in Mycroft, there are a number of other characters who could relate the story; but Palmer chose to give us Mycroft, who forces gendering on us because it’s part of an Enlightenment style they adopt. However, it is notable that the Oxford English Dictionary, in talking about the usage of “they”, makes reference to historical use of the singular they in the Sixteenth Century; and one of the most prominent writers in English of the period, Jane Austen, used the singular they across her body of writing36. The style Palmer is having Mycroft emulate has no constraint against the use of the singular they.

In sum, this book has severe issues with ciscentrism, allocentrism, intersexism, and gender binarism and essentialism. Palmer cannot justify this by saying her hand was forced; she chose this set-up for the book, she chose how to present gender, she chose to have other characters reinforce Mycroft’s assertions about sex and gender, and she chose the whole frame in which the discussion in the book takes place. Too Like The Lightning isn’t progressive or doing interesting things with gender: it is painful, regressive, and I’m going to be ranking it below No Award in the Hugo voting. You, of course, should do as your conscience dictates.

Edited to add links to some others’ interesting, differing opinions on the approach to gender in Too Like the Lightning:

Yoon Ha Lee

Cheryl Morgan

Please note all page numbers refer to the pagination of the 2016 first printing first edition hardback published by Tor Books. Many thanks to my paid sensitivity reader for this essay, who asked to remain anonymous.
1. Page 337
2. Eg Thisbe questioning Mycroft on Mycroft using male pronouns in conversation about a character with breasts, page 248
3. Page 322
4. Page 5, frontispiece in the style of an Enlightenment-period printed book
5. Page 48
6. Page 13
7. All references to page 27. Note also that “neutered” is a term many intersex and trans people regard as a slur, per this poll.
8. Page 331
9. Page 35
10. Page 43
11. Page 24
12. First encountered on page 14, but repeated multiple times through the book, always using ‘men’
13. Page 361, although note that earlier Mycroft has gendered Utopians based on an unknown and unclear metric, pp156-7
14. Page 57-8
15. Page 89
16. Page 90
17. Page 94
18. See Wiki for more on the term ‘Shemale’
19. Page 70; see also page 269, where Cousins’ wraps are referred to as “dresslike” and feminine – although this femininity seems to derive as much from them being worn by Cousins as anything else, with a certain circularity
20. Page 237
21. Page 30
22. Page 48
23. Page 50
24. Page 163-174, 339-349
25. Martin describes Tsuneo Sugiyama as female on page 165 in giving their vital statistics, whereas their recitation of the vital statistics of Cato Weeksbooth does not give a sex or gender
26. Page 368-9
27. Page 66
28. See for instance the dialogue of the soldiers on page 19, where they consistently use they
29. Page 26
30. Both page 138
31. Page 143
32. Page 299
33. Page 139
34. This happens on page 98-9 of Seven Surrenders, according to Marissa Lingen, who discussed the presentation a little more here
35. For an explanation of the term “punching in the face”, see this blog post by Ann Leckie
36. The Oxford Dictionary, and specific references to the singular they in Jane Austen’s corpus

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